Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes

As they have a wonderful exhibition happening at Somerset House in London of Walter Sickert’s nudes then I thought it would be fitting to do a piece on Walter Sickert. His nudes are particularly fascinating and beautiful. I have always had a passion for women nudes, the female body painted is just such an amazing visualization.

painting of a nude woman lying on a bed with her face turned away and a man sitting by her legs

The Camden Town Murder or What Shall we do about the Rent?, c1908.

A naked woman with made-up hair lies prone on an iron bed, her face turned away from the viewer. A man, clothed, sits on the bed by her legs, his hands clasped, his head hung. His shirtsleeves and the bed sheets are picked out in white, but the shadows suggest that the daylight is filtered through half-closed curtains.

The Camden Town Murder (c1908) typifies the enigmatic and rather seedy subjects that Walter Sickert began to paint when he returned from several years living in France. The Courtauld Gallery is now showing a collection of these paintings that reinvented ‘the nude’ in British art, in Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes, (until January 20 2008).

These are paintings that call to mind TS Eliot’s imagery of yellow fog rubbing its muzzle on window panes, soot falling from chimneys on winter nights in Victorian slums, shabby Edwardian existences – even though all there is to suggest these circumstances are drab colours and deep shadows.

painting of a nude on a bed, facing away, with a shoe on the floor

The Rose Shoe, c1902-05.

Suggested narratives and ambiguities are a running thread through the Camden Town Nudes, all painted in sparse studios created by Sickert in his Mornington Crescent boarding house, with a single iron bedstead the key motif.

The only work on show that doesn’t portray this rather bleak London interior is the first nude Sickert painted, entitled The Rose Shoe (c1902-05). Painted while he was still in France (his mistress lived in Dieppe), the naked figure is turned away on the bed, legs curled up, seemingly oblivious to the viewer. A lone shoe with red details draws the attention, appearing carelessly thrown off – but why? Exhaustion or passion? Or does her pose imply she is distraught?

There is no doubt that Sickert’s subjects are prostitutes – often used by artists of yore in need of a model who would pose undressed. One of his first publicly exhibited nudes – a heavy pastel of a semi-naked woman in a large black hat – clearly announced that it depicted a prostitute in its title, Cocotte de Soho (1905).

pastel work of a fleshy nude woman lying on an iron bedstead

Le Lit de Fer (The Iron Bed), 1905.

 

Unflattering light exposes a reclining nude’s fleshy thighs and stomach in the counterpart pastel work, Le Lit de Fer (The Iron Bed). Such gritty realism set the tone for all the artist’s nudes over the next few years, which did nothing for the French view of London as a rather grim, Dickensian place.

“Here are whores collapsed on the unmade bed, whores with withered bodies, weary from the harsh work of prostitution,” as one Gallic critic is cited. Indeed, in Nude on a Bed (c1906), the splayed body has an arm stuck out and one leg awkwardly on the floor as if she had no energy left to lift it on to the bed.

There are unmistakeable elements of Degas, too, in the muted greens and blues, and rusty reds. Seated nude (1906), could almost be one of the dancers, thin and youthful, but in a fatigued pose, holding her lower back, a lanky swathe of hair obscuring her face.

Modern realism, with all its less pleasant aspects, was precisely what Sickert was after. He lambasted the idealised versions of the nude found in the Royal Academy and Paris Salon, which he called vacuous, ‘obscene monsters’.

painting of a nude woman with her eyes closed

Mornington Crescent Nude, c1907.

He put his money where his mouth was, with raw brushwork describing imperfect bodies in claustrophobic rooms, dark rugs on the floor, musty air you can almost smell through the language of the painting. He often positions the viewer as if we are entering the room, seeing the body from the foot of the bed with genitals exposed, or else you loom over her while she sleeps, creating the uncomfortable feeling that you are her exploiter.

The unsettling mood for which he was patently striving found its perfect muse in the murder of prostitute Emily Dimmock in 1907. The ‘Camden Town Murder’ was the talk of London, and prompted Sickert to introduce a quietly menacing male figure into his nude works, along with an obvious washbasin and shoes under the bed, as mentioned in reports of the murder.

In L’Affaire de Camden Town (1909), the man stands over the recumbent woman. There is a terrible cold light in this scene with its loud wallpaper background, but it’s not obvious whether the woman is beginning to cower away from the man, or if she is perfectly relaxed as her lower body – with one leg bent out – suggests. Associated drawings embody a similar uncertain tension – in one, the man has his hands on the standing woman’s shoulders. Is it affectionate, or the precursor to strangling her?

drawing of a nude woman on a bed talking to a clothed woman who is standing over her

Conversation, 1909. Royal College of Art, London

Sickert was a master of ambiguity, offering various interpretations for these spectacles. The man in L’Affaire is substituted for a woman in a drawing he titled Conversation (1909), changing the meaning entirely. He also gave alternative titles to his murder paintings: ‘What shall we do about the rent?’ and ‘Summer Night’ rather change the couple’s relationship.

The Prussians in Belgium (c1912, renamed in 1915) likewise turns a seated nude and a clothed man into an allegory for the First World War, with the lecherous, nonchalantly seated man representing the German invasion.

One might say that Sickert exploited contemporary events, and ran off with the nudes for attention. He certainly had his fun with the Jack the Ripper phenomenon, telling people that the murderer had lived in his room before him.

Sickert’s story inspired the novel and Hitchcock film, The Lodger. Curator Barnaby Wright is certain Sickert would have been chuffed by crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s theory that he was Jack the Ripper himself. While it’s compelling as a conspiracy theory, if anything, Sickert seems to be more of a lover of sombre theatre, an observer, than an actual player in his Edwardian equivalent of kitchen-sink drama.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderfully informative piece on Sickert. All of your entries in this extraordinary forum of yours are worthy of note, especially the writing that accompanies the art.

  2. Thanks Moses for the comment


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